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Let’s end the year with a positive glimpse into the future: a little Kerala village sets the benchmark for a saner future!

Let’s end the year with a positive glimpse into the future: a little Kerala village sets the benchmark for a saner future!

Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom on the global front, despite what the news would have us believe. A spirited response to the planet's manifold ecological challenges has come from a settlement of some 34,000 people in the heart of Wayanad called Meenangadi. Thanks to ambitious plans for the future, this is a name we shall surely hear more of. Over the next three years, government agencies, non-profits, and community groups will come together into a revolutionary experiment to transform this rural haven into the country’s first carbon-neutral village by 2020. The goal is for Meenangadi “to serve as a model for villages across India,” says Beena Vijayan, head of the panchayat village council, “and to show that any settlement can become carbon-neutral—without sacrificing material comforts”. The village, a sprawl of single-storied houses hidden behind lush coffee plantations and thick groves of coconut trees, launched its carbon-neutral project officially last year, on June 5th, World Environment Day. To bring the inhabitants’ net carbon dioxide emissions down to zero, Vijayan says, they will “conserve and expand our forests, plant more trees, reduce carbon emissions from households, promote self-sustenance through organic farming, and recycle our waste.”

This last aim is another revolutionary move. High imports from the Gulf, especially of plastics and white goods, plus a lack of concern for the agricultural balance due to successive governments’ one-sided ‘development’ projects, have created a statewide rubbish dump. This sad situation is not helped by chronically inefficient municipal waste collecting services, which seem to spend much of their time on strike debating workers’ rights. Added to which, there is the NIMBY phenomenon - Not In My Back Yard - a traditional reluctance of local communities to host recycling or disposal plants. Even the tourist authorities continue to miss a trick here; any visitor wandering around the historic trading port of Fort Cochin, potentially perhaps the most attractive urban area in the entire Indian subcontinent, will have been dismayed by the rubbish heaps piled up there.

Undaunted by such a dreary back-story, Meenangadi has already put parts of its ambitious plan into action. For example, the village crematorium, which once used wood, now runs on liquefied petroleum gas, a much cleaner fuel. Last year the panchayat planted trees over some 38 acres — equal to the size of 21 football pitches—on both public and private land. These include 450,000 coffee plants, 32,500 cardamom trees, and over 20,000 other shade trees, including the medicinal neem and multi-purpose coconut, all of which were provided to villagers for free. Water-storing ponds are also being dug. The administration has also given villagers free organic vegetable seeds and buds—cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, beans, bitter gourd, lady’s finger, tapioca, and chilli—and plans to launch an awareness program to promote organic farming practices. This last is vital, as a shift to organic farming practices could reduce carbon emissions per hectare between 48% and 66%, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. As the people plant organics, officials are trying to figure out exactly how much carbon the village emits. Two government-backed organizations are currently conducting soil and energy consumption audits by assessing each and every home that comes under the village council’s control. A report is expected in March.

So far, the panchayat has managed to finance the project, but the village is now turning to the state government for more money. That’s because Meenangadi has even bigger plans in the pipeline. Over the next two months, the village wants to ban the use of plastics (perhaps they have heard of our innovative policy here at The Hermitage!) and turn back the deadly tide that disfigures so much of Kerala’s roadsides and open spaces. It is also planning to set up a new aerobic composting unit, breaking down food scraps, rotten vegetables, animal remains, and hospital waste using bacteria from cow dung, a process that doesn’t produce any carbon or methane waste. Alongside this is also a proposal to build small biogas plants in select households to turn organic waste into energy, and authorities are drawing up a plan to build a small solar park that will add power to the electricity grid.

The villagers are also keen that LED lamps are manufactured in the area. These are 80% more efficient than incandescent lamps, and the scheme would provide jobs for locals while also making it easier for them to buy environmentally friendly products. Over the next few years, they want to extend this program into the entire district of Wayanad. This may be ambitious, but could well be feasible. Since coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi government has focused on making India an electricity-surplus country. Since January 2015, the government has sold 215 million LED lamps, leading to a 22 million-metric-ton reduction in carbon emissions countrywide.

It may be hard to credit the boldness of Meenangadi’s vision. Nothing of this sort has ever been attempted in India, so there are no off-the-shelf plans, blueprints, or model systems. There is one good international benchmark: the English village of Ashton Hayes, a hamlet of about 1,000 people near Chester. Ten years ago it bravely vowed to become the UK’s first carbon-neutral community. Since then, it has managed to cut emissions by 24%, but is still a fair way from being carbon-neutral. Nevertheless, Meenangadi is bullish about the project ahead. “I wouldn’t think it is an impossible task,” says Chandra Bhushan, head of the industry and environment program at the Centre for Science and Environment, an environmental advocacy organisation, in New Delhi. “These are excellent initiatives and in line with what needs to be done to make a village carbon-neutral.”

However, even if Meenangadi doesn’t entirely succeed, it is pointing the necessary way forward and would certainly serve as a model for bringing change to India’s heavily polluted cities. “Tackling climate change is as much a task that needs to happen from the bottom up as it is led by the governments, and villages like Meenangadi are positive role models,” says Chaitanya Kumar, senior policy advisor at UK-based Green Alliance, an environmental think tank. “It also shows how far the issue of climate change has percolated to the grassroots where people understand its significance and are taking proactive measures”.

This is surely the point. The time has long passed for passive grassroots acceptance of the dire environmental consequences of unplanned policies implemented for short-term economic gain. The planet’s future is too important to sacrifice on the altar of expediency, and we can all do our little bit. As the saying has it 'For the forest to be green, every tree must be green' All power to the villagers of Meenanagadi! India, and the wider world, is watching you!

by Alistair Shearer

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